December 2, 2018 - Michael Salinger

How do you do what you do, do? Cuyahoga Community College

Alternative title: Being Crackpot Poets for Fun and Profit


Sara and I sort of made up our jobs. Twenty years ago, I didn’t even know that what I am doing for a living now was even an option. In fact – according to recent research by Dell and the Institute For The Future 85% of the careers that will be available in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. So unwittingly preparing for a career that I didn’t know existed turned out to be a shrewd strategy.

Claire McMahon, Associate Dean at Tri-Cs Westlake branch asked if the two of us would come in and talk to some students about what we do. Not classroom management or writing tips – but rather how do we keep this whole patchwork ship of poetry, pedagogy and pluck afloat. This was an enticing challenge – we often are in front of a group performing our poems, leading a writing workshop or talking about lesson process in the classroom with teachers – but it’s not that often we sit back and actually reflect on the business of our business.

What particular attributes of our avocation turned vocation would be helpful for these scholars – what parts of our piecemeal-ed profession are universal? So, we did what we do – we created a presentation. Sara based our chat on a quote from Jane Yolen.


Jane knows her stuff – you don’t end up with enough published books that your reader can read a different one every day for a year without cultivating a bit of wisdom.  We addressed each of these attributes as we navigated the hour and a half bestowed upon us to divulge all our secrets. I’ll give you the sweetened and condensed version.

  • Be Collegial Instead of Adversarial. In the gig economy there is plenty of work to go around. If you’re good, you’ll do much better by making friends instead of competitors. Read the room, learn the vocabulary used by your prospective clients, how can you help? Take suggestions for improving whatever service you provide from the folks you are priding to. Always answer YES. You can figure out the details later. Expect to be disrespected – usually not on purpose. People are busy, they’re wrapped up in their own deadlines and worlds. Remember – 99.9% of the time – while a majority of statistics are made up – It’s not about you.
  • Be Constantly Inventive: Nobody stays in the same job for 20 years anymore. Used to be that you got a job settled in, earned your pension and retired. Not anymore – everything is moving at the speed of data. How’re you going to keep up? Be flexible, look at challenges as opportunities. Just this very presentation was a new endeavor for us. But, putting this together also made us take a look at our profession through a different lens. Every bit of experience you gather is an asset. Look for patterns in the way things are done – pay attention to details – see what can be repurposed. Skills I developed writing as an engineer have served me well in writing lesson plans – working as a purchasing agent gave me an understanding of POs and other business skills that we use for our own booking now. (If you don’t know what a PO is – well, there’s the case for learning niche vocabulary.)
  • Foster New Artists: Who are you helping to grow in the community? There’s a saying around academia – the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low. This transfers to the arts and to any gig economy profession. I’ve seen communities of artists torn apart by petty jealousies. It’s tough enough trying to make a living outside of the usual 9-5 grind, no sense in burning bridges behind yourself. Offer good advice and then don’t take it personally if it is ignored. Keep to the high road. Remember – there are a lot worse crimes than someone else practicing your profession a little less adept than you. What timely advice would you have given yourself if you could?
  • Work Hard-Deliver on Time. Don’t overpromise and always deliver early. This is simple – while we do advise that you always answer yes – do so with a deadline and a true evaluation of your own talents in mind. Pad your time just in case for those unexpected delays. Nothing is more inspiring than a deadline – but, if it looks like you’re not going to make it – let your client know as soon as you know yourself. Don’t claim skills you don’t have but don’t be afraid of learning on the job – just be honest during the process. A whole lot of the lessons Sara and I teach in classrooms came about because we were challenged to writing something particular to a teacher’s need. They didn’t exist until they were asked for. It’s way better to have time to take a relaxing look at a project before delivering than to be breathlessly firing it over a client’s bow one second before the cutoff.

So far so good.

And that in a nutshell – is what we talked to the kids about. We took some questions at the end and it seemed like we got away with it. It was fun to look at what we do from a different perspective and there were cookies to boot!

Thanks to Claire and her colleagues at CCC for giving us the opportunity to try on a new mantle and thanks to Jane for her wise words on which we were able to pin this presentation.


Sara giving the presentation a last few tweaks before the students show.


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“Sara and Michael bring infectious energy and joy leavened with deep knowledge of best practices in literacy to their work with children and teachers.” Ellin Keene – Author of Mosaic of Thought and The Teacher You Want to Be
“Sara and Michael bring magic, and a contagious love of words to both students and teachers alike!” Georgia Heard - Author of Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School More testimonials...